Evan Keefer, 11, skips stones into the Susquehanna River from a boat slip in Goldsboro, PA. Across the water stand Units 1 and 2 of the Three Mile Island plant. A partial meltdown occurred at Unit 2 on March 28, 1979. Radioactive material was released and some 140,000 people evacuated from surrounding areas. Robert Keefer, 46, was about the same age as his son Evan when the accident occurred in 1979, but the magnitude of what had happened didn’t sink in for years. Today, only Unit 1 is in operation, and Keefer is raising his family in Etters, on the western side of the river upwind of the plant, where he thinks it is safer. “Can we do nuclear today? Sure, absolutely. But test you need virtue, honor, integrity.”
Helen Hocker, 87, sorts through sweetgum tree balls, part of a plant collection she has assembled over the years near her home in Etters. Although studies failed to show a direct link between radiation releases and adverse plant and animal health effects, Hocker believes the plants are deformed due to radiation. “We had a plum tree,” she said, “and that died. We had a peach tree – that died.”
Greg Kupp, 56, serves a customer at Kuppy’s Diner in Middletown. The diner has been owned by the Kupp family since it opened in 1933. Greg Kupp and his wife Carol took over from his father in 1991. The diner stayed open during the accident, and the Kupps continued to feed all those who didn’t evacuate — and emergency workers who came to help out. Carol Kupp says the family never considered leaving, then or in the years since. “Unfortunately this happened in our backyard. But we have a livelihood here. This is our business. This is our home.”
“I can’t stand looking out at those towers,” said Ken Shartzer, 57, from the office of Top Water Marine, a boat dealership he owns in Goldsboro. “There’s not too much stuff that scares me, but that does,” he said, gesturing toward the plant. “It’s the stuff that you can face, that I’m not afraid of.”
Karen Gomboc and Daniell Burkholder, longtime friends who have lived in the area since before the accident, enjoy the evening together from Gomboc’s father’s boat at the edge of Swatara Creek, near Royalton. “I don’t like it one bit,” Gomboc said, looking south across the water toward the plant. She remembers that after the accident, the lightning bugs didn’t appear again in the summer nights for a long time. Burkholder, though, doesn’t think much about the plant anymore: “the towers are just part of the landscape.”
Thermoluminescent dosimeters, a type of radiation monitor, hang in a locked box on the western bank of the Susquehanna River. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, the community organization EFMR Monitoring Inc., and Exelon Corporation, which owns and operates Unit 1, all have monitoring systems in place to keep track of radiation levels in the area.
Larry Wolfe, 67, uses a metal detector to locate the buried posts that mark the property line of his front yard. He lived in the area before the accident, and moved into his current house in 1999. He isn’t bothered by the plant’s proximity. When people ask why he moved so close to it, he says he replies, “to get a glowing personality.” He does have a concern about nuclear waste. “But if we’re smart enough to figure out nuclear energy, we’re smart enough to figure out how to get rid of the waste.”
Like many others in the community, Mary Stamos of Harrisburg keeps potassium iodide tablets on hand, in case of another nuclear emergency. The tablets, which protect the thyroid gland from radiation, are available through the State Department of Health and the local watchdog group TMI Alert.
Before the partial meltdown occurred, “we were told that an accident at TMI was as likely as a meteor falling from the sky,” said Eric Epstein, 54, the chairman of TMI Alert, and the coordinator of EFMR Monitoring Inc., which continuously measures radiation in the area. TMI Alert, which was formed in 1977, dramatically increased the scope of its activities following the accident and is still active. “One of the problems with nuclear power is not just the half-life of waste, but the half-life of memory,” Epstein says. “You have a responsibility if you’re the community involved with an historic event to preserve the memory.”
Mary Stamos inspects a daffodil from the plant samples she’s accumulated over the years, at her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, about 9 miles from the plant. Stamos, an anti-nuclear activist, vividly remembers the morning of the accident. “I smelled metal, and I couldn’t tell if I was eating it or breathing it.”
Activists stand in silence on the 35th Anniversary of the accident in front of the North Gate of the Three Mile Island plant in Londonderry Township early Friday, March 28, 2014. Every year since the accident, a group has gathered before dawn to hold a moment of silence marking the time the accident began. Gene Stilp, 53, a longtime anti-nuclear advocate who has come to the vigil almost every year, says of the protest, “we’ve been fighting this fight for 35 years. And it is not over yet.”
The Unit 1 cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant rise above a neighborhood of houses off River Road in Londonderry Township, PA. Unit 1 was offline at the time of the accident and not damaged, but wasn’t restarted until 1985, and then amidst protest. Unit 2, the site of the accident, remains closed.
Before being licensed to work at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, operators must complete their training here, in the Unit 1 Control Room Training Simulator, a replica of the plant’s control room. The simulator, located within TMI’s Training Center in Middletown, which was built in the wake of the accident, also hosts regular exercises for current operators. During one out of every six weeks, TMI operators use the simulator to hone their skills and keep them up to date.
Benjamin Peterson, 2, of Highspire, tries to follow along during a hymn at a Sunday morning service in March at the Middletown Area Bible Church. The Church held services out of a storefront in downtown Middletown until it bought its current property in 1978, a piece of land located on a small hill above the Susquehanna River near the Three Mile Island plant. The accident happened a year later, but the church still went ahead with its move after most in the congregation voiced their support.
During a visit to Middletown in March, Joy Streeper, 41, of Lebanon, PA, walks her dog Jasmine by the Susquehanna River. Robert Reid, who was Middletown’s mayor during the accident and its aftermath, said a concern at the time was whether people would avoid Middletown and products made in the area because of their association with the nuclear disaster. Would there be an exodus? Would people no longer come to visit? Would people not buy Hershey bars because they were made in the nearby town of Hershey? Those problems never materialized, Reid said.
Greg Houser, 57, of Royalton, was born and raised up the road from the Susquehanna River and Three Mile Island. He spends much of the warmer months in his boat on the river, and when asked if the prospect of another nuclear accident worries him, Houser answers, “not a bit. We’re still here, aren’t we?”
The Three Mile Island Unit 2 cooling towers rise above the town of Goldsboro. The Unit 2 reactor was permanently shut down following the 1979 accident at the plant. Today, the towers still stand, a silent monument to the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history.
Danny Nissley, 6, plays in the backyard of his family’s home in Middletown. He’s the 10th generation of a farming family with deep ties to the area’s land. Most of that family didn’t evacuate during the accident because they did not want to leave their farms. Danny’s parents, Jeff and Kendra, say that today they’d be hard-pressed to leave if something were to happen again. “Honestly I’d prefer they weren’t there,” Jeff says of the towers that loom above the horizon. “But until I’m willing to give up electricity, you know, it’s just a reality.”
Photos and Text: SARAH WEISER / RETRO REPORT